Spat on eve of Madiba's day in parliament

By Christelle Terreblanche and Angela Quintal

Parliament's special sitting for Nelson Mandela turned into a nasty last-minute squabble last night over a request to have FW de Klerk co-address the joint sitting.

The African National Congress, which ironically requested former State President De Klerk's participation to demonstrate reconciliation, decided to go ahead with his speech despite two opposition parties' vetoes.

The drama played out in a late afternoon meeting convened by the new Speaker, Baleka Mbethe, to give effect to a request from the ANC on Friday.

Patricia de Lille, the leader of the Independent Democrats, stormed out of the meeting after it became clear the ANC was attempting to bend parliamentary rules to get in De Klerk. The Democratic Alliance also voiced its objections.

In terms of Parliament's rules, consensus from all parties is needed to pass a special resolution, because only an existing head of State or sitting MP can address the House.

In the same vein, the National Assembly last Thursday passed a special resolution to allow Mandela to address the House.

Also prohibited by parliamentary rules, is convening a special sitting in the morning. It is allowed only after 2pm. To change the rules, all parties must agree.

Mbethe said on Sunday night they decided to go ahead by convening the House an hour earlier to allow for a vote to make De Klerk's participation possible.

"The overwhelming view of the other parties was that this is something good. We will therefore convene a special sitting of the House tomorrow to condone the rules broken. There is a precedent for that," she said.

De Lille claimed that three rules were being broken. One to go ahead without consensus, another because a special resolution could not be passed in the morning, and yet another to hold tomorrow's meeting without consensus.

Mbethe, who had just taken over from Frene Ginwala, said about her sudden baptism of fire: "Rules are made for the House to pursue its work in the best way. The rule to only allow resolutions is there for convenience. We will look at changing it as soon as possible. But we are not encouraging the general flouting of rules."

An option to have Mandela speak in the afternoon was rejected, because he needs to fly to Johannesburg in the afternoon to attend the special 2010 Soccer Bid banquet, and could not be delayed.

"We might be small, but what we have on our side are rules and principles," De Lille said.

"We may not be able to stand up against the majority, but we remain true to the principles and rules of Parliament. You can't just have principles and rules changed at the last minute," she said.

She feared that by opening the discussion on Tuesday for voting, some parties may say no and divide the House before the solemn occasion to celebrate reconciliation.

"The objective is to hear Mandela and we are celebrating his vision and legacy for this country," De Lille said.

She said De Klerk was an apartheid era-President and later only a second Deputy President. "De Klerk is not for reconciliation," said De Lille. "He switched it off in 1996 (when he walked out of the government of national unity) and switched it on again in 2004 when he backed the NNP's agreement with the ANC."

She stressed that the ID, which now has seven MPs, will be sticking to its guns on the issue and that her party will boycott tomorrow's meeting to vote in his participation.

But Mbethe said it would have been wrong to miss such an opportunity "to present a message to South Africans, which is not about individuals, but about the country".

"Ten years ago we laid the basis for a strong parliamentary democracy. But this era would not have come, if it had not been for another South African. We want to enforce the role of a united South Africa."

De Klerk arrives early this morning from Germany, after he has been told by Mbethe that he will be able to address the House.

Mandela was informed about De Klerk's role on Saturday.

sign up